The planned withdrawal of a handful of British troops from southern Iraq is more about a desperate attempt to save political face than the success story prime minister Blair is claiming. Conditions in Basra "have improved sufficiently" for some troops to leave, asserts Blair. But the city is a nightmare for its population of about 1 million people. Strategic expert Toby Dodge, of Queen Mary College, London, disputed Blair’s claims as justification for the withdrawal. "It's cut and run," he said. "I couldn't walk around the centre of Basra. The Brits are retrenching in the airport green zone. Basra is a dangerous place… the police are still unreliable, the army is still very much a work in progress and there is a tussle between the militias and the criminals as to who runs the city. Pulling out the troops will take the foot off the brake to increased violence by criminals and militias. The situation could go into freefall."
The situation in Basra is not the only thing in freefall. Support for New Labour is ebbing away at a rapid rate of knots and there is clear political panic in Downing Street that the Tories could be returned at the next election. A symbolic removal of troops is a futile attempt to show that New Labour is in control of what’s happening in Iraq. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that thanks to the 2003 invasion, Basra and other parts of Iraq have been turned into disaster zones. More than 2 million Iraqis have fled the country, 600,000 have died at the hands of sectarian killers, more than 60,000 have been killed by American and British troops and poverty has overwhelmed vast swathes of the population. By their actions, New Labour has succeeded in making British citizens targets for retaliatory terror attacks at home and abroad. If this is success, what does failure look like?
There is possibly a more sinister side to Blair’s announcement. Southern Iraq, of course, borders Iran and is home to vast oil reserves. Withdrawing British troops from the region could be a prelude to a US-led attack on Iran following a border dispute provoked by Washington. This could be aimed at drawing Iranian forces into the oilfields east and south of Basra. According to military expert Dan Plesch, who opposed the attack on Iraq, America’s plans extend far beyond targeting nuclear facilities but include political and economic infrastructure. According to top level sources who spoke to Plesch, marine forces with landing craft are being assembled, each with their own aircraft carrier which in turn are armed with cruise missiles. Plesch says "without any obvious signal, what was done to Serbia and Lebanon can be done overnight to the whole of Iran. We, and probably the Iranians, would not know about it until after the bombs fell". This is the nightmare scenario that Blair and his co-conspirator Bush have produced. A regime change in London and Washington is sorely needed. With the traditional "alternatives" on offer little different than what we’ve got, mobilising for democratic change that transforms the political landscape is more urgent than ever.
Paul Feldman, communications editor